How Association Works
Suppose you are supposed to solve a hard problem.
It could be a mathematics problem, a literary problem, a political
problem, a family relations problem, or a business problem.
Your usual strategy is often to find some similar problem that you
know how to solve, and model that solution.
But what if this is a new kind of problem, or at least a problem
of a sort you don't know how to solve?
Problems like this come up all the time in real life as well as
school, so let's take a look at how they get solved.
We get ideas for solving problems, so let's look at ideas.
We will take a historical approach of how our ideas about ideas
This is a zen exercise: the idea of "ideas" developed historically
much as ideas develop in individual people.
You need an idea, so where do ideas come from?
There are two schools of thought on this:
Platonists tend to have a somewhat fanciful psychology (in
Meno, Plato proposed that we get ideas by remembering prior
existences), but the Platonic school gives us a way to think about
ideas, so let's begin there.
Plato claimed that people have some kind of supernatural
access to ideas.
Aristotle claimed that people observe phenomena, and get ideas
from the observations.
One of the most important notions here goes back to the Mystery
in which participants in the mystery religion can gain inspirations
from a secret source inaccessible to ordinary people.
There were several neo-Orphic organizations, most famously the
Plato's school at the grove of
All these groups believed in a transcendent world of forms, ideas,
etc. that was in a sense more "real" than the physical world around
them; the two most famous works advocating this view are
Gospel of St. John.
This transcendent world is very important to the history of ideas.
While Platonists helped us with a vision of the world of ideas, they
were no help at all when it came to figuring out how we got ideas:
two thousand years after Plato, the best the great Logician
could suggest is that we have a sort of sixth sense for
(mathematical) ideas: see his Russell's mathematical logic, and
What is Cantor's continuum problem.
The psychology of ideas has taken a more Aristotilean course.
Isaac Newton's contemporary,
proposed that we take simple ideas and combine them to get more
Locke was just getting started, so his kind of example might be
something straightforward, like the idea of a paper bag:
By observing how it is used, we can derive that Plato would call it's
Visually, it is large, brown, rectangular, but open at the top.
Auditory: it is silent, except when tapped or handled, when
it makes a rough sound.
Tactile: it is relatively but not quite smooth, rigid but not
brittle (it bends and gives but springs back).
We can also pursue what Aristotle would call it's (teleological)
It is a flexible surface of five of six sides of a rectangular
Notice that by observing the bag, and observing how it is used, we
associate a vast number of perceptions to obtain the ideas of the
form and essence of the bag.
Locke went into how this worked in great detail in his
It is useful for carrying light objects.
In the early Twentieth Century, the man widely regarded as the
smartest in the world (Einstein's predecessor) was the mathematician
Poincare once wrote a
of how he came upon one of this discoveries: he spent a few weeks
working on some objects he called "fuchsian functions," trying to
figure out what they were.
He worked at his study, when, "Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide
until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination."
Twice, after getting stuck on the problem working in his study, he took an R & R break,
during which he got an idea, and returned to his study and, working
out the idea, got major results.
Poincare proposed that in the Unconscious there was an engine that
associated many ideas in some labor-intensive fashion until a reasonably
good-looking combination was found and triumphantly presented to the
And many of us have similar experiences: we mull over a problem until,
suddenly, it comes to us.
Of course, many -- possibly most -- of these ideas merely look good to
the Unconscious, but do not stand up to scrutiny (Poincare did not go
into this aspect of the phenomenon).
Returning to the metaphor of a ship in the
Unconscious page, imagine that while physically sitting at in study,
your Conscious is the Captain of your mind, which is largely unconscious.
The captain badgers the bridge crew (and using the telephone, the engineer
and anyone else withing badgering range) into working on the problem;
then a number of officers and crew wind up working on the problem (or
delegating other crew members -- whom the captain never sees -- into
working on the problem) by associating ideas until they get something or
several somethings that meet some criteria; they happily present the
putatives solutions before the captain who, if he is wise, will check
Meanwhile, philosophers imagined that these ideas lived in a world of
their own, and they wondered what this world of ideas looked like.
One interesting proposal came from the empiricist
who imagined several parallel universes of metaphysical objects,
including a "World 3" of
inhabited by all the scientific and mathematical facts, and all their
As an example, consider two possible views of this World 3.
The second view seems predominant these days, but there are divisions
even there, most notably reflected in two different views of evolution
going back to antiquity.
World 3 according to
The structures of ideas are eternal, immutable, and perpetually
represent the entirety of Truth.
Our inability to perceive it in its entirety is merely a reflection
of our own mortal limitations.
World 3 according to
The structures of ideas are transient, changing, and in an everlasting
process of resolving situations as they appear.
What we see is what is there at that moment.
The more popular view of evolution is teleological, i.e., guided
by a purpose, be it an
anthropic principle, or the Holy Ghost.
The Hindu doctrine of the
suggests that evolution has an aim, an aim that is a better or wise world.
This view is visible in the work of
Friedrich Hegel and
Hegel imagined a process in which there would be two adversarial positions
(thesis and antithesis) which would then be resolved (into
Hegel lived during the Napoleonic wars, when history seemed guided by
ideas, and Hegel imagined a confrontation between systems of ideas,
perhaps represented by nations, in a perpetual evolution towards ...
towards ... well, paradise, according to Marx.
Notice that this view of the world of ideas is teleological, in
the sense that it is evolving towards something.
This evolution towards something better is one of the most popular images
of evolution in general, and spread beyond German idealists and materialists
even to inspire Victorians (witness
--- Mr. "Survival of the Fittest" --- who proposed that the purpose of
evolution was to send life towards a higher life form, like the Victorian
Englishman) and others (witness
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,
who proposed that the evolution of evolution was to evolve from a
chaotic Alpha to a complex Omega).
The contrary position is non-teleological,
But the Greek Philosopher
had a very different view: life evolved in reaction to current
This view has never been as popular, although Darwin's theory of
"natural selection" (a more sophisticated variant of Anaximander's
position) has persuaded most biologists.
Darwin's argument was:
The Darwinian view is more popular among scientists because all
aspects of it are open to study; it is less popular among the
public because it suggests no special place for man in nature.
St. Thomas Aquinas
will notice that there really is no conflict between the two
positions: evolution could be guided, but in a way that no
human could detect, leaving matters, as all good Thomists
would prefer anyway, as a matter of faith.)
There is some mechanism within the mechanism of heredity that
preserves and mixes the traits of parents to produce offspring,
along with some anomalies that those offspring, if they survive,
will be able to pass one to their offspring.
Individuals whose hereditary design works well will likely be
successful, and live and thrive and have numerous offspring;
those whose hereditary design does not work well will not.
Thus over time, the design of individuals within a population
will adjust to their environment --- their current environment
as it is, not their environment to be.
The evolutionary debate also corresponds to a similar debate in
the theory of ideas.
"Men come and go," saith the preacher, but "the earth abides."
Most primitive societies --- and most of antiquity --- had a
cyclical view of time.
Day by day, year by year, generation by generation, matters
went up and down but, ultimately, were always as they were.
developed a linear view of time, of the world slowly becoming
better or worse or different; this view of time arrived in
Babylon just as Jewish refugees were compiling their oral
(and perhaps written) histories into scripture.
And those scriptures spread the notion that man makes progress,
spiritual, moral, intellectual, perhaps towards some goal, and
certainly in some direction.
This view tends to be very popular during revolutionary periods,
when revolutionaries (like Galileo, Voltaire, Kant, Marx,
Huxley, Einstein, etc.) announce that they are dragging society
from the benighted past into the enlightened future.
(It is also popular among moralists who believe that there is an
ideal morality that all people should strive for.)
Optimism being popular, many popular books and school texts tended
to take such a progressive point of view (see anything by
Hendrik van Loon
as an example).
Associated with these views are the ideas of scientific and
artistic progress, that we are developing progressively greater
understanding of the universe and of ourselves.
There are, of course, many skeptics about progress, from H. G.
Wells, who was gloomy about the future of mankind (this is
common among science fiction writers), to contrarians who
think that the entire enterprise is a delusion (witness
who is not convinced that text, like the material on this
web-page, has any meaning independent of the reader).
Well, certainly science is as much a human exercise, and a subject
of study for psychologists and sociologists.
Those who study science and culture, and who ask what are the
materials of science and culture wind up with ideas.
A skeptic who does not believe in the permanence of ideas may
still believe that they are real, it's just that they interact
with each other and with the world like anything else, and that
leads to different views of ideas.
Here are two popular metaphors.
In both examples, we see the world of ideas reacting to the world
as it is, not as it ought to or will be.
Richard Dawkins became popular decades ago
with his Selfish Gene, in which he claimed that it
is useful to imagine that genes, not individuals, are selected
in Darwin's natural selection (to which Stephen Jay Gould
retorted that it was individuals who lived or died).
In that book he proposed a variant of Popper's World 3,
inhabited by atomic bits of idea-stuff: phrases, pictoral
ideas, scraps of melody, etc.
He called these things
"memes," and suggested that they tended
to survive by collecting in organized structures capable of
being transmitted from generation to generation, or culture to
culture, much like genes in chromosomes, and hence in populations.
The success of a meme depends on what other memes it associates
with, and how it associates with them.
Nuts and bolts.
wrote an unusual assortment of van Loon-like history books,
in which he described practical ideas as passive objects combined
by people in unusual ways to form new things.
For example, that old Arab invention, the perfume atomizer, when
aimed at something like Alessandro Volta's version of Joseph
Priestly's eudiometer -- an air qualiter measuring device involving
sparking mechanism -- connecting to another old invention, the piston
(first successfully used for power in Thomas Newcomen's external
combustion engine), and using Nikolaus Otto's "4 stroke cycle"
to synchronize fuel flow and piston movement, the result was
Gottlieb Daimler and William Maybech's Mercedes.
(Of course, I've left out a lot of details, as, no doubt because
of space constraints, did Burke.)
This is a more traditional Lockean view of ideas, and Burke is more
concerned than Dawkins is with the economic needs and opportunities
that generated the inventions.
Moreover, Burke's ideas are more mobile than Dawkins' memes: how
easily the Arabian atomizer (which can trace its own history to
distillation) becomes the heart of the early carburetor.
Thus endeth the zen exercise.
You may notice that we still do not know what ideas are, but we do
have a better idea of how they behave, and what questions to ask.